Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace marches on Reynolds American

by Keith Barber

Twenty-five marchers participating in the 24 th annual NC Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace made their final rest stop at Centenary Methodist Church off 5th Street in downtown Winston-Salem around 6 p.m. on March 31.

The marchers were entering the final leg of a 15-mile trek from the Reynolds American tobacco processing plant in Tobaccoville, where they began their sojourn at 8:30 a.m. that morning, to Reynolds American’s headquarters. The marchers came out to demand justice for all farmworkers who pick Reynolds’ tobacco. Before they departed the church’s association — any worker can join the union — as well as grievance procedures that cover a host of issues ranging from their recruitment in Mexico to issues involving unfair working conditions in the tobacco fields. Other worker benefits include injury pay, bereavement pay, a workers’ compensation system and the creation of a work environment where workers have a voice fellowship hall to walk the final half-mile to through collective bargaining the Reynolds American complex, Alexandria agreements. Jones, the North Carolina outreach coordinator Also, RAI claims it for the National Farm Labor Ministry, gathered retained a “third party” to the marchers together to thank them for their undertake a survey of the efforts.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been involved with a more incredible group of people,” Jones said.

Throughout the day, organizers like Jones and Briana Connors, a representative of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, reminded the marchers of the purpose of their protest. Connors told the story of an immigrant farm worker who died of heatstroke last summer while picking tobacco for Reynolds American on a farm near Goldsboro.

“Every time we march, every time we come together, we’re pushing this campaign a little bit further,” Connors said. “At the end of this campaign, that’s when we’re really going to see things improve. We’re going to see justice for a whole state full of farmworkers.”

For several years now, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, has been demanding a face-to-face meeting with Reynolds American CEO Susan Ivey to discuss how the company could improve living and working conditions for the 30,000 tobacco farmworkers in the state.

In a letter issued by the Leadership Teams of Reynolds American Inc., or RAI, and RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company last year, the company responded to FLOC’s demands for a meeting to discuss the working conditions of the laborers on the bottom of its supply chain.

“The reason we have not agreed to meet with FLOC is simple: we can’t help them,” the letter states. “The workers FLOC wants to represent do not work for us. We cannot enter a bargaining agreement on the workers’ behalf — they are not our employees.”

The RAI leadership team points out that in 2004, FLOC and the NC Growers Association signed an historic agreement that granted immigrant tobacco farmworkers a set of basic rights.

The agreement gave farmworkers freedom of more than 80 North Carolina growers who sell tobacco to Reynolds in order to assess the conditions of farmworkers.

“The survey results indicated that a large majority of farm workers return to the same farms each year, and that growers often provide housing and other services to their farm worker employees,” the letter states. “The vast majority of farm workers rated their treatment as ‘good’ or ‘very good,’ and said they were satisfied with working on this farm. Additionally, the farm workers indicated that they receive training and take steps to prevent green tobacco sickness, and that they would choose to return to work on the same farm the next year.”

Connors, who works full-time at FLOC’s office near Goldsboro, said Reynolds’ statement flies in the face of everything she’s observed in the past year.

“The conditions have not improved,” Connors said. “A lot of crew leaders abuse the people that work for them — they won’t pay them or they’ll house them in horrible housing conditions. They won’t pay a minimum wage, they won’t give them enough breaks, and they’ll charge them for things like food or rent. That continues to be a problem.”

Connors said several tobacco farmworkers in Dudley asked FLOC for help last year after a crew boss named Jos’ Velasquez made death threats against them. Due to FLOC’s persistence, Velasquez was eventually arrested, Connors said, but he left the country after he made bail and the authorities dropped the case. That particular case highlights the vulnerability of tobacco farmworkers, and underscores Reynolds’ corporate responsibility to the lowest paid workers in their supply chain.

“Their response has always been, ‘They’re not our employees. We can’t possibly do anything; we don’t have anything to do with that situation. There’s nothing we can do to fix it,’” Connors said. “So I think first just to sit with us to acknowledge that they’re getting absolutely filthy rich off of the labor of these farm workers, just to acknowledge that this is an unjust supply chain and people are suffering because of the way they’ve structured the supply chain.”

FLOC’s successful boycott against Mt. Olive Pickle Co. constitutes proof that when manufacturers are willing to pay a fair price for a crop, growers are able to pay workers better and provide better conditions, Connors said.

In 1997, FLOC approached Mt. Olive, the country’s second largest pickle producer, to sit down at the bargaining table. When Mt. Olive refused, FLOC launched a successful boycott campaign. In 2004, FLOC began talks with Mt. Olive and the NC Growers Association, which resulted in a three-way labor agreement that covered 8,000 guest agricultural workers on more than a thousand farms across the state.

The Rev. Carlton Eversley, president of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, compared the tobacco farmworkers’ struggle to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s as he addressed marchers last week.

“We cannot allow RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company to wash its hands of responsibility to see that workers get humane, fair treatment,” Eversley said. “This is more, in my opinion, about human rights than it is even about labor rights.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro expressed solidarity with the farm workers.

“We are calling Reynolds to a table where workers can sit down, where growers can sit down, and the manufacturers can sit down at a new table — a table where crooked places are made straight, rough places are made plain, high places are made low and low places are lifted up,” Johnsonsaid. “That’s the newtable we are advocatingfor.”As in the Mt. Olivecampaign, FLOC hasreceived strong supportfrom the state’sreligious communityand social justice advocacygroups like thePilgrimage for Justiceand Peace. As supportgrows, so does thepressure on ReynoldsAmerican to respondto FLOC’s demands,Jones said.During an afternoonrest break, DaniellaBurgi-Palomino of Oxfam voiced a prayer forthe farm workers.

“God of seed and harvest, we give thanks to you for your graciousness,” Burgi-Palomino said. “As your people, we know that we are called to be attentive to the workers who harvest food for our tables. These workers often suffer hardships to bring us our food. Keep us mindful of farm workers and their struggles. Keep us attentive to hear cries for justice and dignity.”

Sergio Sanchez, a FLOC organizer, said he grew up laboring in the fields of North Carolina. The reason everyone should be concerned about the plight of farmworkers is simple — we all eat fruits and vegetables harvested by farmworkers. The call for Reynolds to sit down and work with FLOC is ultimately in the company’s best interest, Sanchez said.

“They have a responsibility for the people at the very bottom,” he said. “They’re part of the supply chain. They’re at the top and the farm workers are at the bottom. They have the most influence in that chain to make the most change.”

As the marchers approached Reynolds American headquarters, their voices grew louder. When they arrived, Jones reminded them that FLOC’s next protest of Reynolds’ labor practices will take place at the May 7 RAI shareholders meeting in Winston-Salem. For the past two years, a coalition of activist groups spearheaded by FLOC has infiltrated the annual shareholders meeting with proxies sympathetic to the farm workers’ plight.

Last year’s stockholders meeting was highlighted by the arrest of Ray Rogers, a labor activist from New York, by off-duty Winston- Salem police officers when he interrupted the meeting to ask a question of CEO Susan Ivey.